Fire, smoke and steel on shifting sands

Port Talbot Steelworks
The area I grew up in is in the news in the UK this week.

There are to be major job losses at the steel works in Port Talbot, where my mother, father, and grand-father worked.

My dad was an engineer there, and my mother was a computer (at least until she married by dad and started their family.) I never met my grand-dad, he died before I was born, but he was an engineer at the steel works during its establishing years, who earned an MBE working on refining the steel-making processes there.

It is literally the crucible of my family, and massive part of the psycho-geography of my early life.

Port Talbot Steelworks

It is a huge industrial site, that dominates not only Port Talbot but can be seen for many miles – lit by flame and sodium-light at night, perched on the coast of Swansea Bay.

From the highlands surrounding – the rather-grandly named ‘Margam Mountain’ you can see it nestling/infesting the border between biomes – sandy, scrubby dunelands and lush welsh ‘rainforest’.

Port Talbot Steelworks

Port Talbot Steelworks

Glance to the left and you see Margam Castle, the grounds of which my mother and aunt grew up in – daughters of the Talbot family butler.

Margam Castle

You can also see the sands of Kenfig, and the lake at the centre of the nature reserve (a ‘SSSI’ – Site of Special Scientific Interest) – where I spent many weekends as a child in the early 1980s as part of a nature conservancy group for kids.

The lake has legends associated with it – most notably that of a sunken city beneath it, but the formation of the lake and the dunes has more to do with changing tides, climate and the forces they can wield.

And now, changing tides of capital and globalisation are at play on the landscape.

I wonder if subliminally I learned something about the history of power and landscape. Something of the disregard the rulers of the industrial age held for the environment, contrasted against the deep romantic love for nature from those who worked for them.

It’s more complicated than that though – not as clear cut.

Something as big as the steelworks becomes a force of nature, both in its impacts on the local ecosystems – and symbolically.

It becomes landscape.

Ridley Scott on the inspiration a similar industrial landscape had on him:

There’s a walk from Redcar into Hartlepool … I’d cross a bridge at night, and walk above the steel works. So that’s probably where the opening of Blade Runner comes from. It always seemed to be rather gloomy and raining, and I’d just think “God, this is beautiful.” You can find beauty in everything, and so I think I found the beauty in that darkness.

The steelworks imprinted something like this on me early – perhaps not beauty, but majesty in the industrial.

The news this week is very sad – overwhelmingly for the people and their livelihoods that it effects. Environmentalists probably won’t mourn the passing of the steelworks, but those of us who find ‘beauty in the darkness’ might.

3 comments
  1. Lovely post. Thanks.

    Did you know that Ridley Scott probably based the look-and-feel of Blade Runner on the area around his art school in theTees Valley?

    The equivalent place for me was Consett Iron Works, in Country Durham. I remember as a kid that the whole area was covered in red dust. And you could see the red glow of the works from 20 miles away on the Durham moors. None of my family was tough enough to work there (my dad was an engineer for Proctor and Gamble in Newcastle, where he put the toothpaste into toothpaste tubes and helped design the shape of the Pringle) – but the shocking thing was the way they erased the whole Consett plant from the landscape after it closed. It was replaced by a small factory making Phileas Fogg tortilla chips.

    http://www.google.fr/imgres?q=consett+iron+works&um=1&hl=en&sa=N&tbo=d&biw=1373&bih=723&tbm=isch&tbnid=cmuz3aIza5YJEM:&imgrefurl=http://www.keystothepast.info/durhamcc/dre.nsf/DREPicture%3Freadform%26PIC%3Ddre/m/00293.jpg%26NAME%3DConsett%2BIron%2BWorks%26IMGID%3DM564%26KEYWORD%3DIron%2B*%2Bsteel%2Bworks&docid=kfTO7zRPucHTlM&imgurl=http://ww2.durham.gov.uk/nd/dre/m/00293.jpg&w=640&h=417&ei=0uK1UNuUE9GVswaG9YFo&zoom=1&iact=hc&vpx=368&vpy=310&dur=2250&hovh=181&hovw=278&tx=136&ty=76&sig=113837239822503973087&page=1&tbnh=141&tbnw=209&start=0&ndsp=27&ved=1t:429,r:9,s:0,i:112

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